Boutique owner Kendall Sandifer began the year preparing for business as usual. Her shop, Fringe Clothing, sits in the heart of the River Market District of downtown Little Rock and attracts wandering tourists and dedicated shoppers alike. Sandifer opened the store in 2013 to offer unique and stylish clothes, and its continued success convinced her the store had become a well-oiled machine.
“I thought I would be able to take a step back this year, especially since I’d had my baby,” said Sandifer. “I thought I had figured it all out.”
When the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdowns began, however, Sandifer found her entire business model upended. Fringe had always depended on in-person shopping, and though the store had a website, she had not used it to sell her products for years. Faced with a fully stocked store and no customers, Sandifer realized her sales would need to go virtual.
“My husband and I said, ‘Let’s just start uploading things to the website and turn the store into a warehouse,’” Sandifer said. “At first, we said, ‘Let’s just pay rent.’ Then after a week, we did that, so we said, ‘Let’s just pay the bills.’ The website just picked up and took off after that.”
Many stores like Fringe have been forced to turn to e-commerce to remain open this year. Larger businesses and chains with already robust websites were able to thrive quickly once the pandemic prevented in-person shopping, while smaller establishments had to improve websites or create new ones entirely. Commerce has increasingly gone online in the past decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly accelerated that shift.
In 2019, e-commerce made up about 10 percent of total retail sales, representing yearly growth of about 1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Online shopping did not dominate the market, though Amazon has made it increasingly easy to receive items just days after making a purchase. This year, however, people have turned to online shopping out of necessity and fear for their safety rather than just convenience. In 2020, e-commerce sales jumped to 16 percent of total retail sales.
The impact on stores selling non-necessities, especially those without websites, has been stark. Coresight Research estimates that 5,000 retail stores have closed this year, while only 680 new stores have opened. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that within retail, clothing stores have fared the worst. Monthly sales for clothing stores has decreased by 30 percent compared to 2019. Major department stores including J. C. Penney and Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy this year. The owner of Little Rock’s Park Plaza mall, CBL & Associate Properties Inc., filed for bankruptcy in November. Park Plaza is home to Dillard’s flagship store.
Major commerce giants Amazon, Target and Walmart have reported record sales this year. While Amazon has always specialized in e-commerce sales, Target and Walmart were both able to remain open to in-person shopping due to being classified as essential businesses. But each has been developing its online shopping capacity for years. Target launched a curbside pickup program, Drive Up, in 2018, and expanded the service to include grocery pickup at most stores nationwide this past summer. Walmart also launched a delivery service in 2020 called Walmart+. Small businesses generally have neither the money nor the necessary crowds to create apps or systems to power curbside and delivery programs, but they have still had to adapt to an increasingly online shopping environment.
Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston told Arkansas Money & Politics that retail consistently adapts to consumer demand across digital and physical retail-sales channels.
“From local store owners generating foot traffic through Small Business Saturday and other avenues to companies like Walmart unveiling the Walmart+ program, business owners in Arkansas are doing an excellent job of meeting customer demands through challenging times,” he said. “The retail industry will continue to innovate and adapt to customer needs, and Arkansas will continue to welcome investments from both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce retailers.”
Fringe Clothing, after moving to sell merchandise online, was clearly able to quickly innovate, but Sandifer is conscious of what the store has both lost and gained in 2020. Fringe’s website was a huge success, and the shop had two of its best selling September and October months in years. Its neighbors in the River Market District, however, have struggled. The Ottenheimer Market Hall has remained closed since March, decreasing significant foot traffic in the area, and other retailers have had to close their doors. LUV boutique, another women’s clothing store next door to Fringe, has remained open, while men’s high-end clothing store Barakat Bespoke is open by appointment only. Freckled Frog, a gift shop, closed entirely. Despite Fringe’s success, Sandifer notes that Amazon is always a looming threat.
“They can buy in bulk, so they sell boots for $30 while I’m selling them for $74,” she said. “I try not to think about those things, but I try to focus on my business and on being creative. I try to stay positive. There’s something about a small business that Amazon just can’t give you.”
The retailers that have traditionally struggled to compete against e-commerce giants are booksellers. When Amazon launched in 1994, the website exclusively sold books, and both local shops and national chains have struggled to compete ever since. WordsWorth Books & Co. has been serving the Heights neighborhood in Little Rock for 30 years. Lia Lent bought the store in 2017, and Amazon has always been a significant competitor. One of Lent’s first actions was to overhaul the store’s website so customers could actually make orders online.
According to Lent, WordsWorth has had a fairly steady year in sales despite fewer people shopping in the store. After the pandemic began, WordsWorth closed to in-person shopping and focused on online orders and curbside pickup before reopening to the public in late May. The bookseller also focused on social media to stay in touch with customers. The shop launched a “Shop from Home” campaign for Christmas that actually encourages people to order books on WordsWorth’s website and have them shipped to their home to avoid crowds in the store. Similar to Sandifer, Lent simply tries not to think too much about the larger competitors, and instead she focuses on what WordsWorth can give customers that online shopping cannot.
“We have more personalized customer service — even if you call us on the phone, you talk to an actual person. Our staff loves making recommendations,” she said. “Our message is really just, ‘Shop local.’ We have to support our local businesses.”